COLUMBIA — Breonna Brown, now a junior at Douglass High School, felt lost in crowded classrooms when her mother died suddenly three years ago.
Shorty afterward, Brown transferred from Lange Middle School to what was then Jefferson Junior High School.
"When I came back after my mom passed away, I had gotten so behind," she recalled. "The class sizes at Lange made it to where teachers didn’t always know me or understand what I was going through. I think I may have failed seventh grade."
Brown said she struggled to get out of bed in the morning and had little desire to attend class or work toward graduation.
Instead of following classmates to Rock Bridge or Hickman high schools, Brown chose to attend Douglass High School. The alternative school generally has smaller classes than the main high schools and is oriented around helping students who have struggled in traditional settings.
She said she struggled with anxiety. "I couldn’t focus, and teachers just couldn’t give me the one-on-one I needed," she said. "So I made the decision to come to Douglass."
Brown’s story touches on one of the main challenges facing Columbia Public Schools: how to give every student an equitable chance to succeed.
"Our big work ahead is going to be in the area of enrichment for all kids, especially for those kids who come from fragile families, and achievement for all kids," said Peter Stiepleman, who will take over as superintendent for Chris Belcher in June.
Another key challenge, in Stiepleman's view, is how to fund a high level of education as the district grows in student population and expenses.
Challenge No. 1: Providing equal opportunities for students
When six School District leaders were asked to name the biggest challenge facing the district, all said closing the gap in academic achievement.
"Addressing student achievement is not just a School District issue, it is an issue of poverty," said Jonathan Sessions, who was recently re-elected to the Columbia School Board. "Often people place a lot of blame on public education as the root of the cause. It’s a community effort and is not something we can solve on our own."
Belcher, assistant superintendents Stiepleman and Jolene Yoakum, chief academic officer Sally Beth Lyon and School Board President Christine King expressed similar sentiments.
"While we may be proficient in terms of overall student performance, our 'super subgroup' continues to under-perform, and that’s not OK," Stiepleman said. "From our perspective, that’s our big goal."
The "super subgroup" comprises African-American and Latino students, as well as students on free or reduced price lunch and enrolled in individualized education or English language learner programs.
Each year, students in grades three to eight in Missouri take a test called the Missouri Assessment Program. In 2013, the percentage of Columbia Public Schools students passing the English language arts and mathematics tests varied for different racial and ethnic groups.
The percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program in Columbia Public Schools in 2013 increased by nearly 9 percent in 10 years. From 2004 to 2013, the enrollment percentage for Columbia Public Schools has been about 10 percentage points lower than the state average.
Fewer than three in 10 students with limited English proficiency graduated from Columbia’s public high schools in 2013. For students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, the rate was more than seven in 10.
The percentage of district students on free or reduced price lunch — a measure of poverty — jumped from 40 percent to almost 43 percent in a year, Stiepleman said. He is quoting a higher figure than that used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (39.6 percent in 2013) because he is including pre-kindergarten students.
The four-year graduation rate for students on free or reduced price lunch was about 75 percent in 2013, compared to the district’s overall graduation rate of about 86 percent, according to the district’s report card on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. Students with limited proficiency in English graduated at a rate of about 29 percent — nearly 40 percent lower than the state average in the same category.
"Achievement is staying flat while rates of poverty move up," Stiepleman said. "We need to review data and choose strategies to measure what is working and what isn’t. The cycle of improvement requires honest and true conversations in our schools and in our community."
Addressing the achievement gap is difficult because an educator has to understand where the students and families are coming from in order to put successful programs in place, said Heather McCullar, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, specialist at Benton Elementary School.
"The district will have to continue to think outside the box and implement programs based on the needs of the students at various schools," McCullar said. "This can happen by focusing on high academic achievement for all students in the district, even if that means varying how this looks in schools based on the needs of the student population."
Asia Plagman, a sophomore at Battle High School, said she was destined statistically to do poorly in school or to drop out because the emotional, academic and financial support at home is unstable.
"Students rise to the expectations you put on them," said Plagman, a member of Battle's Advancement Via Individual Determination system, which provides student with resources and support to get them ready for college.
"There is a big difference in what is expected of me between my honors or (Advanced Placement) classes and my regular ones," she said. "That spurs on inequality because kids in my regular classes never rise to a higher level."
Plagman said that after she graduates, she plans to go to college and study science.
"I have had an awesome group of teachers that pushed me to dream bigger," she said. "The AVID program and the options to take classes are such advantages to growing up in Columbia Public Schools."
While there is no one solution to closing the achievement gap, the AVID program and increasing involvement in AP classes are examples of practices that have made a difference, said Yoakum, who has overseen secondary education for the district since 2012.
"There is an information gap we need to address so that all parents and students know about the advanced classes and options out there," Yoakum said. "We also need to grow our culture to meet the needs of all kids. Many of us have limited experience but serve kids with diverse backgrounds."
Although the district has made genuine, sustainable efforts to make a difference in student achievement, it is discouraging that progress has been hard to see, Philip Peters, an MU law professor, said. Peters is also a project director at Cradle to Career, a coalition of community leaders that partners with the district to improve student success and reduce disparities.
"The district is doing exactly what the books tell to do in focusing on issues like literacy and equal access to advanced classes," Peters said. "But we need to have better outcomes. And government agencies, social nonprofits, parents and teachers all need to join the effort to make a dent in the gap."
Belcher said the state has been negligent in providing financial support to close the gap.
"Two-thirds of the gap is a result of reading loss," Belcher said. "We need more in after-school reading programs and access to early education. We haven’t seen an investment at a state level to help us provide those resources yet."
Summer reading loss is a drop in reading ability that occurs over the summer if students don't stay engaged in reading materials appropriate for their grade level.
Liz Peterson, a parent of three whose two older children attend public schools, said she is concerned that classroom overcrowding and the need for higher teachers' salaries are overshadowed by the extreme focus on achievement.
"The impression I've gotten is that all we're thinking about is achievement in the future," said Peterson, a board member of Columbia Parents for Public Schools. "I don't want us to put blinders on everything else."
Challenge No. 2: Funding education as state contribution declines
The district is growing by about 200 students every year, primarily at the elementary level, said Linda Quinley, chief financial officer for Columbia Public Schools.She will also take on the duties of chief operations officer next year.
That means at least one new elementary school is needed every five years, Belcher said.
As of September 2013, there were 17,905 students enrolled in district schools. That’s up from 17,707 in 2012 and 17,256 in 2009.
As the district continues to grow, state funding has flatlined since 2008, Quinley said.
"We haven’t been able to add or improve programs because we constantly are pouring our funds into growth," Quinley said. "We have cut all we can, asked the community for all we are comfortable asking for and now it's the state’s turn."
It costs $10,000 every year to educate a Columbia Public Schools student, Stiepleman said. The state contributes $3,000, leaving a $7,000 gap filled in by local funding.
"Every time we add a kid, it is taxing on the system," Stiepleman said. "Because funding from the state is short, it is a task for our community. We don’t make this ask lightly and are first looking for internal ways we can reduce."
The piece of the district operating budget funded by state dollars was about 27 percent in 2013, slightly up from about 26 percent in 2012, according to the district report card. In 2009, state funding accounted for about 31 percent of the budget.
Local funding, generated primarily through property taxes, has been increasing since 2011 — up to about 67 percent in 2013.
More students are enrolled at Mill Creek, Mary Paxton Keeley, Blue Ridge and Alpha Hart Lewis elementary schools than the schools are designed to hold. Enrollment has not yet surpassed capacity at any of Columbia’s public middle and high schools.
In 2013, Columbia Public Schools received about 67 percent of its funding from local revenue sources, a slight increase from about 62 percent in 2004. Since that year, the percentages of revenues from federal and state sources have decreased by about 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
Thanks largely to local funding, the district is not in any fiscal danger, but its biggest issue is how to best prioritize what few additional funds are left over every year, Quinley said.
She said keeping class sizes low and creating new student programs are areas where funding is needed but has been hard to allocate.
"We haven't been able to add or improve where we need to," Quinley said. "We want to maintain our class size while we grow, which will be difficult to do. We know that our students have needs outside of academics and would like to put programs into place. We just can't do it all on our own."
District teachers Amy Schirmer and Dean Klempke said large classroom sizes have made it harder to reach students individually.
"I have 23 students in my second-grade classroom," said Schirmer, who is in her first year teaching at Alpha Hart Elementary School. "We have to provide a lot of academic support, especially in reading, but also have to teach our kids how to behave correctly and adapt to change. That’s hard to do with larger class sizes."
Elementary, middle and high schools had relatively consistent ratios of students per classroom teacher in 2013. The average student-teacher ratio for elementary schools was 19 students per classroom teacher. For middle schools and high schools, the average ratios were 18 and 17.5, respectively, though Douglass and Battle high schools had much lower ratios than Hickman and Rock Bridge.
Schirmer said second-grade has the largest classes at Alpha Hart, at about 23 students, but she said she sees that as a temporary problem.
"I know that our school has grown tremendously in the past few years, which is a common problem for other schools, too," Schirmer said. "We also foresee the class sizes going down due to the new elementary buildings being built."
Klempke, who has spent 14 years in the district, said it is time for a refocus on the personal touch of teaching.
"Over my years, I have noticed how data-driven we have become," said Klempke, a science teacher at Gentry Middle School. "It sometimes feels like we’re digging up more data instead of teaching kids. We need small class sizes and time in teachers’ days for personal connections with parents and kids."
Breonna Brown, the high school sophomore who struggled in school after her mother's death, said personal relationships with teachers is one of the huge reasons she has thrived at Douglass.
"I'm able to cry on the shoulders of some of the Douglass teachers here," Brown said. "I'm not a math person, but my math teachers sit and talk to me. They help me through issues in my personal life, and counselors help me with my mom and my anxiety."
Brown is set to graduate — a year ahead of schedule — in May 2015 and plans to attend MU to become a nurse.
"I really want to give back because people have helped me so much," Brown said. "I have a lot of good memories from CPS. It's made my childhood awesome. I feel ready for the next step because of the way people have invested in me in personal ways, every day."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.